EXTREME: Stanford’s James Patell’s Approach to Emerging Economy Innovation

I spent a big chunk of my afternoon chatting with James Patell, he of the famous Design for Extreme Affordability course at Stanford.

I wanted to see if we could involve his students in the Bihar Innovation Lab and whether there were any other kinds of synergies we might discover. Perhaps his students could come in and teach at the Adianta School. Perhaps we could do joint projects in future.

Patell showed me a longish video of work one of his student teams had done in Cambodia, a kind of fertilizer pellet planting solution that worked off existing hand tractors commonly used in the region. The students had obviously had a blast doing the work, had gained innumerable insights, skills and experiences along the way, while also creating an actual product that did actual things to improve the lives of everyday people growing rice in Cambodia.

Most people know about the Embrace story, he said to me, but there are another 90 products and projects that have made another kind of impact, though perhaps have not necessarily led to a new company. I suggested it was time to broad-base this approach beyond the classroom, perhaps through a program or another approach. Way ahead of me, as it turns out: Stanford SEED has recently been built and other colleagues are off launching a Ghana center even while I am at campus now.

I’m open to talking to you guys and perhaps there is an opportunity for us to partner, he allowed. But you guys have to bring something to the table as well — that could be an interesting problem or a set of partners we can work with on those problems. He also made the caveat that his students would have to address challenges rather than work on pre-defined product or solutions concepts — not much different from the way we work at CKS, really.

For my part, I have to say I was suitably impressed with the overall approach Patell had developed, blending real-world challenges identification alongside design and development techniques coupled with business modeling and partnership building. Perhaps there are ways his students can work with the Bihar Innovation Lab and the Adianta School in future. Let’s see.

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